It’s Good to be Bad: On Writing Unlikable Characters

My shadow keeps doing that
My shadow keeps doing that

The very first line in Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is, “I have a meanness inside me, as real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out…”

Right out of the gate, I knew I was going to like this book. It spit in the face of everything my screenwriting background had taught me. Libby Day, Dark Place’s narrator, doesn’t care what the reader thinks of her and that’s one of her most endearing qualities. She doesn’t pet a dog to win us over. She doesn’t compensate with a sense of humor. If she’s an ice queen with a heart of gold, she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve.

Libby wins our affection almost by accident. She’s the lone survivor of a murder spree that claimed her mother and two sisters. The moment this personal tragedy could get our sympathy, we learn she’s been exploiting it for money, living off of donations, even having a self help book on recovery ghost written for her. Now she’s down to her last few dollars. She’s a loser who strives to be as unlovable as possible.

Libby testified that her teenage brother sacrificed her siblings in the name of Satan, but didn’t actually see the event go down. When a group of true crime junkies hire her to investigate her past, Libby starts to wonder if the killer is still out there.

Libby’s call to action forces her to grow fast. Since she starts from such a low place, she has nowhere to go but up. Even though, she set out to rub us the wrong way in chapter 1, we find ourselves rooting for her when the book is done. Her no bullshit attitude proves beneficial. She doesn’t come with a strong moral code, but she finds one on the way.

These are the types of stories I love the most: likability long cons. If Libby had started as a grown up girl scout, she wouldn’t have commanded my attention.

Ask yourself, if Tony Stark was a gentleman from frame one, how compelling would you have found his transformation into Iron Man? If Han Solo never cared about Galactic Credits, how much would you have cared when he helped the rebellion at the last minute? If Catwoman hadn’t stollen Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, would you have cared as much when she decided to help him save Gotham?

Unlike those lovable rogues, Libby Day doesn’t even bother being charming, but she goes through a similar karmic transition.

"There's nothing behind my back..."
“There’s nothing behind my back…”

Average Characters are Overdone

A trap early writers fall into is trying to make their characters likable from the get go. Treating character introductions like job interviews, they go out of their way to make a good first impression.

A lot of writers think the key to making characters relatable is to make them as average as possible. This is why sitting through movie trailers feels like watching a parade of Joe Everymen. I’ve already written about how much I hate that feeling. I don’t find regular Joe’s very compelling. Designing your lead to appear hyper normal, is a cheap way to make them accessible. A smarter investment, would be to give them a goal your audience can relate to.

Maybe we’re not all blue collar slobs, but we all want a reason to get up in the morning. Maybe we’re not all Joe-sixpacks, but we all want to be happier than we are. Maybe we’re not all average Americans, but we all want to be loved by someone.

Your character doesn’t need to be someone the audience wants to have a beer with. They’re not running for president. You don’t need to file down their jagged edges. Well developed characters are just as likable as characters that are just like us. It’s more important for your hero to feel like a human being than a delegate for all of humanity.

"... I swear."
“… I swear.”

Don’t Avoid Every Extreme

Writing a believable character is a lot like trying to seduce someone; if you’re too calculated in your approach, your target audience is going to feel it. They might not be able to explain why it’s not working, but they’ll have a very strong hunch. If you use manipulative language on a first date, your date has every right to walk out on you. If pander to what you think your audience wants, they have every right to put your book down.

Readers have read enough stories to subconsciously recognize writers’ tricks. Character formulas are not love potions.

If you write with an imaginary audience in the room, you’ll sacrifice your honesty in the name of broadening your appeal. You’ll avoid extremes. You’ll struggle to make your character vulnerable, without seeming too whiny. You’ll make them an underdog, with an unnatural resilience. You’ll waste too much time trying to make them seem smart, but not too clever. One sarcastic quip too many and you’ll fear you’re losing your reader.

If you write with your audience in the room, you’re setting yourself up for writer’s block. How can your story move forward, when you’re so afraid your reader will turn on you?

There’s something freeing about writing nasty characters, then unleashing them on the total squares that occupy their universe. We all spend so much time saving face, it’s fun to watch someone cast off social mores with reckless abandon. Audiences might find your hero repellant in the prologue, only to root for them later on.

Sarcastic, cynical, arrogant people are not without their appeal, so long as they’re three dimensional. Defects give your characters room to grow. Don’t rob them of a deep emotional change by making them too likable from the get go.

10 thoughts on “It’s Good to be Bad: On Writing Unlikable Characters”

  1. I have some really wicked characters I want to develop in several stories. Your article was both entertaining and informational. I look forward to referring to it in the days and weeks and months ahead.

    Thank you for writing, posting, and sharing this!

    1. Thanks for ready and commenting.

      I’ve been told my stories are great by people who also said they hated my lead, not in that they were poorly written characters, just that my reader didn’t relate to them right away. Some characters are just interesting enough to grow on people.

  2. Do some people really write with their audience in the room? What a dismal, restricting way to work. I totally agree with you about not writing Joe Average. SO tedious and so overdone. The way to write absorbing characters is to make them have SOME traits that the reader can identify with but still make them that bit more attractive, that bit more charismatic, that bit NASTIER, more bitchy, or more successful, a bigger failure, whatever. I’ve got a few reviews by people saying they didn’t like any of the characters in a book, and thus marked it down – oh well, you can’t please everyone. I don’t write about nice people in nice considerate relationships when everyone is really super nice to each other. I’d fall asleep writing it….

    1. Rude selfish characters are what drew me to Chuck Palahniuk’s first few books. His characters were crass and uninhibited. I found I related to many of their failings, but I never wanted to meet any of them.

      These days, I like writing dangerous characters. The kind that make people wonder what’s wrong with me.

  3. Yay for this! Great post Drew and you make all your points so well! My main character in my WIP has had mixed responses from beta readers and I find that very satisfying! Some don’t find him likable, some feel sorry for him. Some have mixed views on him. Some love him! Some prefer one of the supporting characters more (who I’m not that fond of actually as she is kind of average!) The great thing is though, that because I wrote with absolutely no idea of how to write a book when I first started, the character grew very organically. I didn’t think about whether he was going to be likable, or average, or superhero like. He had a goal and he has to work though the three books to reach it. He has flaws (many of them!) and he’s selfish in the main so even though he ends up doing good it’s usually because he’s trying to benefit himself first! But a load of rubbish stuff happens to him too, stuff he can’t manipulate and control. I really hope I have created a 3 dimensional, believable character (as much as a mini fantasy character can be!) But I think I have to leave that up to individual readers to decide. After some feedback I was tempted to go and change things but then thought ‘no’! Everyone will have differing opinions on the character. And that is as it should be I think. I don’t write with the reader in the room. I write to create a story and it is through the characters, whoever they are, that the story is carried.

    Love the post and love the shadow picture! Knew from that and the title I was going to love this one! 🙂

    1. Glad to see I’m not the only one writing rude, no bullshit, characters.

      I agree, what matters is that the character’s goals are relatable. It helps if they come with a strong drive before the story starts and then if they acquire a goal in direct conflict with that drive.

      If you’re worried about creating a 3 dimensional character you can always sculpt him into a more believable one in further edits. 😉

      As always thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  4. We’re all protagonists in our own stories but I’ll tell ya, I don’t mind being the bad guy sometimes. I read somewhere a while back that a well written character is difficult to lump into one category or the other. Just like in life, each of us is a good guy from some perspectives and a bad guy from others. Why shouldn’t our characters be the same?

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